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July 31, 2017

Persona 5: Waifus All Night (Part 3)

Okay, I know this post and the last two are about Persona 5’s waifus (those in the main party, at least), but can we take some time out to talk about the potential husbandos?  Or the bros, alternatively?

I’m not debating or downplaying the quality of the ladies in this game.  But given the choice, I’d go with Ryuji above all others without flinching.  If there was a very specific, character-driven alternate ending or string of extra scTales of Symphonia -- and the only way to get them was to get closer to one of your comrades, then I’d shove all of the other waifus out of the way for the chance to pal around with Loud Kiddington.  Ryuji’s my bro, no contest…except it’s still kind of a contest given guys like Yusuke “Lobsters” Kitamura, Sojiro, Mishima, Yoshida, and the rest.
enes -- a la

So on that note?  I’ll go ahead and parrot a sentiment that’s been floating around for a while: give me romance options for the boys/men, whether that involves making a female protagonist or not.  (I’d assume it wouldn’t because of the drain on resources a FeMC would be.)  I don’t want to keep my bros at arm’s length, or treated as the loser option because I didn’t pine after a waifu.  I want to hang out with the characters I think are coolest, regardless of gender.  Chances are high that others feel the same way, or they just flat-out want that romance option because it suits them best.  In which case?  Atlus, don’t let us down next time.  You’re pretty much our only hope in a world where Final Fantasy can barely scrape to the level of mediocrity.

But enough about that.  Let’s get back in the waifu game…with ALL THE SPOILERS.

In keeping with the proud tradition of navigators who take on support duties (and letting other party members focus 100% on frontline fighting), Futaba Sakura joins up after clearing her Palace.  It’s no cakewalk to get her, of course.  The Phantom Thieves are goaded into a battle with the faceless band of hackers, Medjed, who are set to unleash chaos on Japan with a few simple key strokes.  As rearing and ready as the Thieves are to change their hearts, there’s a problem: they can’t do anything without a name, a location, and the distorted perception of a target.  And since they’re up against anonymity incarnate, they’re left helpless with time running out.

Their saving grace?  Enter Futaba, a genius hacker who makes the Thieves look like 85-year-old grandmas who can’t even turn on a computer.  She’s the only one they can find on short notice who can help them, at least if they plan to keep their identities hidden.  (I hope the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on our heroes.)  Of course, the problem is that Futaba has demands that need to be met before she’ll lend a hand; the Phantom Thieves will have to infiltrate her Palace and steal her Treasure as a means to straighten out her messed-up mind.  And oh, what a messed-up mind it is.  But I’ll get to that.

I’ll be honest.  Prior to the game’s release, I was the most worried about Futaba and her quality as a character.  I should’ve known better, because this is Atlus and the Persona crew we’re talking about; they know what they’re doing.  Then again, this is also a modern Japanese game from a Japanese company, and the state of the media over there is…concerning, to say the least.  There are some eyebrow-raising and groan-inducing tropes that have gained a lot of prominence over the years, played without a shred of self-awareness (or half-assed acknowledgement that doesn’t change anything besides highlighting how groan-inducing it is).  Little sisters!  Otaku girls!  Being a NEET -- and/or a shut-in -- is cool!  Moeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee~!

At the outset, Futaba came off as the intersection of all of those tropes -- an attempt to pander to those most suspect to storytelling vices and anime conceits.  It almost seemed like she was produced in a lab, as some kind of experiment in producing the ultimate waifu.  But now that I’ve finished the game, I know that my fears were unfounded.  I can indeed confirm that Futaba is not just otaku-bait.  She’s her own character, and she has stuff going on besides archetypes and attributes.  That’s good.

The problem is that, having seen what she has to offer -- after getting merely a glimpse of it in spoiler-free, offhand discussions -- she swings in the opposite direction.  To me, Futaba initially came off as an anti-waifu.  She was (and still partially is) wrapped from head to toe with “DO NOT WAIFU” tape.

At a base level, she’s as nerdy, quirky, and laugh-inspiring as you’d expect.  Get her to come out of her shell, and she’ll toss out weird lines and show a level of enthusiasm that most toddlers would have trouble matching.  Like any good nerd, she takes her passions seriously, to the point where you’d expect her to maul Yusuke “Lobsters” Kitamura for touching her Neo Featherman R collection.  Her awkwardness -- combined with everything else about her, her matter-of-fact intelligence well among them --makes her endearing.  As always, anyone who falls for her is justified.

But there’s a very unique set of problems that Futaba presents, at least for me.  This is a legitimately messed-up character -- someone who could stand to have some major therapy sessions.  If Joker and crew had never stepped into her life, she would’ve stayed cooped up in her room all day and night, cut off from society and languishing in her sorrow while pretending to be fine because of the stuff she’s into.  And she does have sorrow, because the catalyst for it was her mom’s death a few years ago.  That in turn left her shaken beyond belief, largely because Futaba sees herself as responsible -- and that in turn not only left her with distorted desires (which birthed her Palace), but with the unspoken wish to flat-out die.

Pffft.  I know, right?  So adorable.  Much moe.

By stealing the Treasure (incidentally, Futaba herself) from the cognitive realm, Futaba does manage to start making a recovery.  Granted part of that is triggered by recognizing the true sequence of events that caused her mother’s death and resolving to crush the criminals that caused it in the first place, but it’s something.  It’s a positive catalyst that pushes back her negative one, and gives her the will to live -- and move forward -- once again.  But what I like about P5 is how it doesn’t shove aside Futaba’s issues in an instant.  She’s not instantly cured and back to business in imaginary Japan as usual.  She has tons of baggage that needs sorting out.

It’s baggage directly addressed in the days following the resolution to the Medjed arc.  For fear of playing armchair psychologist (and giving a misdiagnosis), I’m not going to say that Futaba is suffering from social anxiety.  I’m just going to give a slight nudge toward that conclusion.  Very slight.  It takes days of effort on the Phantom Thieves’ part to make her capable of even a basic conversation, and at the outset she’s willing to hide her face behind goofy headgear as a safety measure.  Even when they succeed and make her a trusted member of the team, Futaba’s still not in the clear.  A trip to Akihabara pretty much makes her shut down -- just because she was around too many people she didn’t know.

It’s a tricky situation.  Even if it’s easy to forget because of her antics and quirks, the game will remind you every now and then that Futaba needs help.  Fair enough.  But the complexities come in when you think about the context of the Persona games (and others, like the Devil Survivor games).  As the MC, you have a chance to do more than hang out with your favorite guy or gal.  Seeing their personal stories through to the end means positioning yourself so that you can help them resolve their issues -- and in some cases, that resolution can act as a straight path to romance.  Is that really the right thing to do?  Is that really the best path to take?  Your mileage may vary.

But for me, the particulars of the Persona series caused a huge disconnect -- possibly because P5 was too good for its own, well, good.  Futaba doesn’t just feel like a waifu in waiting or otaku-bait.  She feels real.  Her struggle feels real.  Is it a perfect, one-to-one representation of psychological problems?  I don’t know.  There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to know, given that this girl suffers through hallucinations and even post-Palace breaks down into a storm of stuttering and tears.  So that raises a bigger question: is it okay for you, as the protagonist, to swoop in and resolve her problems knowing full well that it can lead to what might as well be a romantic relationship?  Is it okay when you acknowledge that a romantic relationship is exactly what some players are actively gunning for because the developers purposefully made that possible?

Like…I don’t know much about psychology, but I’m pretty sure that psychologists want to keep some emotional distance between themselves and their patients for obvious reasons.  How I Met Your Mother taught me that.  Among other things.

Credit where credit’s due: even if you do without romance -- as I did -- Futaba is still a cool character to have around.  (She DOES share a voice with Tales of Berseria’s Magilou, after all.)  Of the female members of the cast, nobody is more important to the plot or the team effort than the resident genius who pretty much created a hacktivist group offhandedly.  Whereas Haru’s dad pretty much becomes a footnote throughout the rest of the story, Futaba’s mom still leaves shockwaves that the Phantom Thieves have to deal with -- even if that’s largely because Futaba is not okay with her mom’s death, but you get the idea.  She might be the smallest member of the team barring Morgana -- seriously, she looks like she’s two feet shorter than Yusuke “Lobsters” Kitamura in some scenes -- but she’s still a major mover and shaker.

But as a core party member and a potential Confidant entry, what does her story entail?  Who is she when you expose every last bit of her, right down to the romance option?  Well, let’s have a look.

Futaba’s Confidant arc is focused on her trying to reintegrate into society.  With Joker’s help, she makes a promise list, AKA a set of objectives to focus on and guide her rehabilitation.  Despite the depths and seriousness of her issues, the front half of her route is fairly breezy; she makes video game references, dumps on Mishima, and reminisces about eating ketchup-soaked strawberries, for example.  But it’s not all fun and games, of course.  Heading over to Shujin Academy reminds Futaba of the stresses she had to endure back when she went to school.  That photographic memory of hers made her into a social outcast, so one wonders if she would’ve gone into hiding even if her mother was still around.

The real wrinkle comes in once Futaba is forced to confront her past.  Her promise list isn’t a spur of the moment creation; she used to make them all the time with her mom.  Back then, one of those points involved getting friendly with a girl named Kana, who showed some shred of kindness to the elementary-aged Futaba.  As fate would have it, though, Kana ended up tripping one day and revealing some sordid details: her parents opted to use her as a living doll to dress up and take pictures of as they saw fit.  And when Futaba confronted her about the situation, Kana rejected her as hard as she could. 

Flash forward to the present, and Futaba finds out that things have only escalated.  Kana’s parents have fallen into deep gambling debt, and they’ve taken to using their daughter as a means of escape by -- naturally -- forcing her to play dress-up even more and selling the photos for profit.  The Phantom Thieves straighten things out after a dive into Mementos, and Futaba bridges a gap that’s been left stagnant for years.  With that, her promise list is complete, and she’s proven that she’s capable of moving out of her comfort zone.  For now, at least.  However slightly.

Having gone through her Confidant route, I’m…actually not that into it.  I don’t hate it or anything; overall, it’s fine.  It’s acceptable.  It just didn’t leave as much of an impact on me as the other routes -- so I guess at a base level, she has the opposite problem that Haru did.  The heiress was marginalized in the main story, but elevated because of her side story.  The hacker was elevated in the main story, but her struggle kind of feels marginalized in turn. 

With that said, there is an interesting element here.  Yes, you can absolutely choose to enter a relationship with Futaba if you so choose.  You can shrug off her feelings in the same instance, if you decide to stick with your other waifus -- or fly solo, for that matter.  But no matter which choice you make, both options evolve Futaba in different ways.  She’s basically Schrodinger’s Waifu here, only with a lot less boxes, poison, and death.

If you opt out of a romance, then Futaba won’t begrudge you for it.  She’ll just accept that Joker’s been there for her as a loyal teammate.  After that, she heads back to Akihabara to shop, and does fairly well -- a far cry from the freak-out she had at the outset.  She’s so ecstatic about her success that her Persona turns into a big freaky smiley face that’s on fire…for some reason.  If you go all in with a romance, then you’ll spend the final sequence of her route in her room, wherein she’s eager to stay as close to Joker as possible and act with a level of tenderness you didn’t even know she could reach.  It’s the sort of thing that’ll make your kokoro go doki doki.

I’m still wary of the implications behind a relationship with Futaba, but I can see the intent here.  It’s not as if the game is implying that she’s become mentally and emotionally dependent on Joker; romance or no, he’s there as a pillar of support, not a savior or master.  But since there is love in the air, see it as a major step for her rehabilitation.  The Futaba at the beginning of the game (or at least when she comes in) can’t even talk to people outside of texts and online chats; Joker’s efforts, however, let her enjoy a degree of intimacy that would have otherwise passed her by.  If you keep her at arms’ length, though, you also get to see her develop as a person -- as someone who can go shopping without her circuits getting fried.  They’re two valid options, as well as valid end goals for someone who’s suffered so much.

Is one of them the right answer?  Is one option -- or merely the route toward that option -- inherently corrupt and based on personal gain?  It’s possible to view it as such, but ultimately, I think that P5 manages to sidestep those implications.  Here’s my reasoning: even if Futaba clings to Joker because he saved her from her personal hell, she still retains a sense of independence.  Her identity; her passions; her drives; her reason; her will; all of it stays intact.  She’s not a slave to Joker or the player behind him; Futaba is Futaba, and that’s all she really needs to be.

Admittedly, she’s not my favorite member of the cast, but that’s fine.  There can only be one.  And by extension, there can only be one waifu.  Something tells me you know who that is.

See you next time.

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